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Frankenstein: Man as Monster, Research Paper Example

Pages: 7

Words: 1802

Research Paper

Thesis Statement

In Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein, the monster brought to life by Victor Frankenstein represents the primitive and dark nature within Frankenstein himself.

Author’s Motives and Ambitions

Before examining specifically how the novel itself points to Shelley’s intent to portray the Frankenstein creation as an extension of the hero, it is worthwhile to view the unique circumstances surrounding the writing of the book. These in themselves are so singular as to have become legendary.

Wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, and intimate friend of the second generation of great romantic poets as well, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley moved through a world devoted to intellectual and spiritual experimentation and study. The “Age of Enlightenment” of the 18th century had lost its appeal to the intellectual and artistic elite, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau was hailed by the Shelleys and their circle as the founding father of the “Romantic Reaction”. In this ideology, the ultimate power of man’s ability to reason was dismissed, and a belief in the true greatness of all things in their natural state took its place. “’Have the arts and sciences conferred benefits on mankind?’ Rousseau…contended that the arts and sciences create artificial wants and jeopardize the natural morality of unspoiled man” (Sofroniou 137). Mary Shelley, her husband, and their close friend Lord Byron embraced this ideology. It is likely to have influenced the shape her tale, famously begun as an entry in a ghost story competition, would take.

Artificial culture, unfortunately, made up a substantial portion of the world in which the Shelleys moved. They were aristocrats in wealth and breeding, if not technically by birth, and English society of the early 19th century was dull to them. They frequently went abroad, seeking the more primitive and natural environments they felt more helpful for finer experience, and Frankenstein was conceived outside of Lake Geneva in Switzerland, then a raw and majestic countryside. This setting as the scene of creation underscores Mary Shelley’s own attraction to the unrefined and the more primitive.

Operating within this social framework was another aspect of this circle’s curiosity: the nature of man himself. Fiercely intellectual herself, Shelley joined with the great male minds of the day in contemplating the hidden impulses within men, long before Freud would categorize them for the world. She was fascinated by the duality at the heart of men, as was her circle, and she wanted to explore the contrasting forces of primitive and unspoiled man against the societal “construct”. The storyline of Frankenstein would permit her to present this duality within a single man, and employ as well the current fascination with reports of Charles Darwin having reanimated dead matter.

More directly, Mary Shelley herself reveals something of this intent: She “…suggests that if we concur with her characters in reading the creature as a monster, then we…become ourselves the authors of evil” (Schor 23). Moreover, it is important to note Shelley’s subtitle to her novel, “A Modern Prometheus”, referring to the Greek myth of the mortal who dared to steal fire from the gods and was eternally punished for it. The Promethean myth itself has been widely interpreted to symbolize man’s struggle with himself: “…The fire that he steals comes to represent the spirit of technology, forbidden knowledge, the conscious intellect, political power, and artistic aspiration” (Dougherty 3). No matter the symbolic goal, the struggle remains that of man with himself, and this is the essence of Frankenstein.

Narrative Elements

Mary Shelley’s classic is a hybrid of the Gothic and the Romantic novel form. Her prose alternately employs classically romantic excess with deliberately vivid accounts of horror, expressed by the characters themselves. This duality within the style of the novel itself reinforces the author’s greater purpose, for it reflects the wildly shifting elements within Victor Frankenstein as a man.

There is a nightmare quality to most of the book. Much of it relies on letters exchanged, and this also adds to a dreamlike, distanced tone. The letters Victor both receives and writes  read like messages from the civilized world coming back to him in his growing madness and grief. His father relates in detail the gruesome death of Victor’s younger brother, ending, “Come, Victor; not brooding thoughts of vengeance against the assassin, but with feelings of peace and gentleness, that will heal…” (Shelley 98). This gives an impression of Victor trying to console himself for a crime he himself committed.  The fact that this comfort comes by way of removed letter, one which Victor is “sharing with us”,  adds an extra layer to the feeling that he is addressing himself in some manner.

Then, as a large portion of the book is conveyed through Victor Frankenstein’s own words, the reader is drawn more deeply into a subjective reality which may not be wholly trusted.  The hero is many things, but above all he is always introspective, examining  his own capabilities, desires, and motives all the time. As written by Shelley, Victor Frankenstein is very intrigued by himself, a state of being significantly more pronounced when he reanimates dead tissue. At this point, Shelley is careful to ensure that he testify to his own mental well-being: “Remember, I am not recording the vision of a madman. The sun does not more certainly shine in the heavens, than that which I now affirm is true” (Shelley 71). As Mary Shelley well knew, no convincing madmen ever declares himself to be insane. This avowal from Frankenstein is a device which adds substance to Victor’s crisis of a divided selfhood.

Interestingly, when Victor speaks of his laboratory triumph, his  intricate language deserts him because he cannot properly describe the experience. This is an unexpected failing from a man so determined to pursue rational science and explain himself. It provides striking evidence of an intentional presentation of a moral duality within one man, and it overshadows the literal description of the mechanics of the operation. “Victor falls into a ‘trance’…in his ‘work-shop of filthy creation’ he loses ‘all soul or sensation’…It is almost a parody of the loss of self in the Christian ideal” (Levine, Knoepflmacher 6). Victor falls, in fact, into many “trances” during his creative processes, losing actual consciousness of what he himself is doing. This strongly suggests a Freudian submersion into an id state, and the terror later related by Frankenstein is reminiscent of the fear individuals face when confronting their subconscious in intense therapies.

In the extreme settings of the novel, and in particular the frozen expanse of the North Pole where Victor and his “demon” confront one another, so too does Shelley establish a dream landscape wholly in keeping with the theme of primal conflict within one man. The electricity of Frankenstein’s laboratory is “fire”; the tundra is ice. Here Shelley blatantly reveals how she is contrasting the essentially discordant elements of man. He is cool and refined, with cultural aspirations, but he also has a dark and mysterious core.

The Monster

To further enforce the thesis that monster and man are in fact the same being, the most weighty evidence stems from the creature himself. Appearing as an actual figure some time after his more horrible actions have been committed, he is a startling image of his own creator.

Most surprising to those originally familiar with the Frankenstein tale as rendered in film is how beautifully well-spoken the monster is: “How, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us” (Shelley 136). Moreover, the monster is a good deal more than articulate. He is shrewd, and he deftly executes a bargain for a mate to be similarly manufactured for himself.

Everything within this lengthy and pivotal passage in the novel may be read as an inner monologue. The monster refers to himself and Victor as “creature” and “creator”, a link made use of elsewhere and one that highlights the shared identity of the two. Then, the heated exchange between them reads very much like a transcribed internal conflict; the self appears to be arguing with itself, and matching each point in a manner that the opponent seems to anticipate, no matter how painful the consequences. This dialogue between Victor Frankenstein and his creation, set in a frozen wasteland of utter isolation, is a textbook confrontation between ego and id, and particularly so when the object of the creature’s bargaining is made clear: a mate.

Beyond this lies the solid fact of the monster’s inescapable presence. Once created, he is in a sense always with Victor, and the latter conveys often his despair at never being free of this “creature”. It is a true haunting of a suppressed self for, even as Frankenstein travels to escape his anguish later in the novel, he knows he is shadowed, as indeed he is. The creatures declares to him, “I left Switzerland with you; I crept along the shores of the Rhine…I have dwelt many months in the heaths of England, and among the deserts of Scotland…” (Shelley 235). He actually catalogues the journeys the reader has taken with Victor, and the distinct impression given, and clearly at the heart of Frankenstein’s despair, is that the two are indeed bound unto death as one.

Conclusion

“A critical discussion of Frankenstein needs to begin from a critical insight first recorded by Richard Church and Muriel Spark: the monster and his creator are antithetical halves of a single being” (Bloom 2). That Church and Spark, both 20th century writers, were the first to so suggest this is revealing. It indicates that only a post-Freudian perspective could so assess the novel.

No matter when the interpretation was initially presented, however, the object of Shelley’s work is nonetheless evident. Her own life and circumstances were highly favorable to an introspective examination of the real nature of man, as well as to whatever darkness might emerge from it; the body of the book is composed in a subjective, florid, and alternately rational and baffled style, indicating a deeply conflicted central character; and the creature of the book, tellingly never given any actual name of his own, echoes the protagonist’s speech and intelligence and haunts him like an inner demon.  In Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein, the monster brought to life by Victor Frankenstein represents the primitive, dark nature within Frankenstein himself.

Works Cited             

Bloom, H.  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. New York, NY: Chelsea House, 2006.

Dougherty, C. Prometheus. New York, NY: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Levine, G.L., and Knoepflmacher, U.C.  The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley’s Novel. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1979. Print.

Schor, E.H. The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.

Shelley, M.W. Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus. London, UK: George Routledge and Sons, Limited, 1891. Print.

Sofroniou, A. Moral Philosophy: The Ethical Approach Through the Ages. Swindon, UK: PsySys Limited, 2003. Print.

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